I Can Write A Mission Statement Too, Jerry Maguire*

Full Metal Jacket introduced us to the now iconic imagery of Private Joker’s helmet with “Born to Kill” emblazoned on it and a peace button pinned to his chest. When an officer questions him about the contradictory nature of these elements of his dress he eventually responds that he was trying to “suggest something about the duality of man,” or “the Jungian thing.”

While Jung was unquestionably getting at something deeper than entertainment preferences that seem to be at odds with one another, that infamous contrast kept floating to the front of my mind when crafting a Spotify playlist so seemingly mismatched that it gave me pause. Suddenly, I had to ask myself, What does it say about me that I have haphazardly thrown The Spice Girls alongside Rilo Kiley and have Dolly Parton immediately following The Dropkick Murphys? Do I have eclectic taste? Or no discernible ability to discriminate between tracks that strike me as a jam-and-a-half and those that are merely familiar?

Many people would simply say, "I like what I like" and move on, but the nature of having a film degree means I have been conditioned to intellectualize popular culture. The knee-jerk reaction is to analyze the value of every work. And perhaps that’s at the root of the problem.

Add to that the "investigate everything" mentality that comes with a journalism degree, and you’ll begin to understand what I’m dealing with here.

Professionally, I traffic as a film critic, but I am and always have been, a movie lover. So while my read-film-as-art self recognizes that Batman Forever is certainly not a great film, and really not even a good one, my 7-year-old self still has Jim Carrey’s every line memorized and will watch for the full duration any time I happen upon it. For the record though, both selves agree that 1995 Chris O’ Donnell is a total fox.

Much like early exposure to sad British pop music is said to have been a formative factor for Tom in 500 Days of Summer, a long-standing love for High Fidelity has led me to completely identify with the idea that “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” That may seem utterly ridiculous to some, but, hey, it’s like Rob explains: “Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth.”

Led by that logic, I believe that my cultural preferences are among the building blocks that inform my personality. By that measure, I’ll always wonder why it is that I’m drawn to any work in particular. However, like Val Kilmer’s Batman comes to understand that he must always be both Bruce Wayne and Batman, I’ve come to embrace the fact that I need Katy Perry’s E.T. as much as Bikini Kill's Rebel Girl.

Perhaps, I should have realized it years ago. After all, John Hughes laid it out plainly enough in The Breakfast Club. “Each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal.” I still don’t know if that answered Mr. Vernon’s question, but it tells me that my warring tastes all have a place.

And so, I resolve to love both Mad Men and The Facts of Life, wear my mockingjay pin while I read Tom Robbins, watch the likes of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Double Indemnity back-to-back and apologize for none of it.

No more guilty pleasures for me, thanks. I'll consume my entertainment and enjoy it too. As a critic, writer and consumer of culture I’ll keep a wary eye out for not only artistic achievement, but for something, anything to love, simply for what it is, in every work I encounter.

I’m not erratic. I’m eclectic, and that still leaves plenty of room to be discerning, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

 *Don’t call it a memo

Steve Ruygrok Tackles the State of Journalism in Debut Novel, ‘The Decaying Pillars’

“To write well, you have to write what you know.” It’s an old adage, but it’s still one every writer hears at some time or another. First-time author Steve Ruygrok does just this with The Decaying Pillars a novel that examines the state of journalism and envisions a dark future it could be headed toward. I was fortunate to the novel in its earliest stages and once again in its final form — from that first incarnation the most marked change is a deeper focus on the core issue: what journalism has become.

The narrative takes us back several years to 2006, a time when the industry had no idea what to make of the Web (in many ways it still doesn’t, but a new style has emerged for better or worse) and traces the rise of a website, The Times, propelled by a visionary leader, Jack Strain. Jack isn’t a member of the idealistic journalism elite. He’s a member of the business elite. He cares less about the work being created than the fact that people are buying it. Quality isn’t his pursuit, clicks are. Credibility isn’t his standard, currency is. And that’s why he’s hand-selected to lead a team of editors and launch The Times.

Jack’s counterparts at The Times are similarly representative of some other types you might see kicking around any newsroom. There’s Cameron Nelson, a young, idealistic guy who is all about morals and reporting hard news the way Woodward and Bernstein did. Then there’s Jill Reddick. She’s an industry vet who is weary of the old boys club attitude toward women and wants to go somewhere her talents won’t be marginalized or questioned. Karen Drove arrives at the times looking for a path into the digital space, she’s talented and experience, but tired of watching print outlets shutter and having to scramble as they come crashing down. Finally, there’s Dustin Smith a young cocksure guy who provides much of the comic relief in the tale, but also functions in the manner of a Shakespearian fool — there’s a lot of wisdom buried in his fast-talking puns, quips and eccentricities.

Given our main players and Jack’s very simple directive — make all the money and be the most trafficked website, no matter what — we watch as The Times begins a meteoric rise, it’s staff bending the rules to the breaking point all-along the way, with encouragement from Jack of course.

It is here that I know Ruygrok is writing about that which he knows. Having been on the digital side of the industry throughout his career, and making his start right in this tumultuous time, he’s seen the shift. The way the rules all blur on the internet, the rise of sponsored content, the fact that writing articles about what celebrities post on social media is now a routine practice. While some things, like chronicling silly videos made by celebrities are little more than irksome, ultimately innocuous, clickbait; other of these practices are genuinely disconcerting. It’s in this space that Ruygrok builds his tale and posits his questions.

What does it say about the industry when organizations are chasing trending topics like vultures? Scrambling to be first, with the most clickable headline and nevermind if it’s speculation or uncertainty, so long as it’s fast. Write now, apologize later. And what happens when we’re so dependent on ad revenue that the actual articles being created are seen by the powers that be as the stuff we place our ads around? And what of native advertising? These are big questions that you’ll find most in the industry firmly exasperated by. In theory, the answers are obvious and simple. But in reality, the situation couldn’t be farther from black and white.

And therein lies the great interest of the novel, at very least for people on both sides of this equation. The journalists still sticking it out, and all those of us who have left for greener pastures. Having lived in this tumultuous landscape, and on the other side, with the marketers loving that sweet, sweet native advertising, I found myself quite compelled by what was happening. It’s familiar situation that conveys a truth that’s easy to ignore in one’s own life and actions, but becomes painfully clear played out in this manner. The stakes are heightened of course, but if Ruygrok, is looking to start a conversation about the state of things, he should accomplish it here.

The Decaying Pillars is an ambitious, introspective tale. It’s a parable for the modern state of journalism. It never claims to have all the answers, but it doesn’t seem to me that resolution is the point. Rather, it asks us to examine what it is we’re working for, what we hope to accomplish and how we can restore the fifth estate.

The Decaying Pillars is available on Amazon.